Magical Mystery Pour #10: Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale

The second beer chosen for us by The Beer Nut (@thebeernut) is Bell’s Two-Hearted Ale (7% ABV) from Michigan, USA. We bought it from Beer Gonzo at £3.70 per 330ml bottle.

Magical Mystery Pour logo.We were vaguely aware of having heard of this beer but pointedly didn’t look it up before tasting to avoid skewing our judgement any more than necessary.

On opening the bottle, we were treated to a wonderful fruity, flowery aroma, like something on the air in an sub-tropical ornamental garden. It looked beautiful in the glass, glowing orange with a rock-steady head of whipped-white foam. Altogether appetising.

The head on a glass of beer.

The first taste elicited involuntary expressions of delight: Ooo, cor, blimey, phwoar! Which we guess answers the fundamental binary question about whether we liked it or not. It took us back to a decade ago, experiencing absolute delight as we tried one American IPA after another at The Rake in London’s Borough Market, marvelling at beers that seemed heavier, richer, sweeter, more bitter and more intense than anything we could find on draught in our local pub.

Close-up the aroma suggested not flowers and fresh fruit but pipe tobacco and boiling marmalade. There was something old-fashioned about the whole package, which brought to mind a historical recreation we’ve enjoyed a lot on more than one occasion, Cluster’s Last Stand.

The bitterness seemed high compared to some similar beers we’ve had, a sort of drying blast over the tongue at the end of each dip, but it conveyed a sense of solid maturity rather than showboating X-TREME-ness.

Another beer that we thought of was Fuller’s Vintage Ale — an odd leap, perhaps, but there you go — which led us to a conclusion: Two-Hearted is like an English bitter boiled down to concentrate. We know that Gary Gillman (blogger and sometimes commenter here) and Nick (mostly on Twitter) are in the habit of letting down packaged beer to recreate the effect of cask ale so decided to follow their lead and dilute a sample of Two-Hearted 50/50 with tap water. This was revelatory, even though it didn’t taste great in its own right: reduced in intensity, it did indeed resemble, say, Young’s Bitter, or Harvey’s Armada IPA.

We were very impressed with this beer and would drink it again. It’s not cheap but it’s not outrageously expensive either and we couldn’t think of many British beers that provide this particular kind of jammy, chewy, juiciness at a lower price. (Suggestions welcome, of course, but think orange, marmalade and toffee rather than mango Champagne.)

Tasting done, we looked it up, and found felt slightly embarrassed not to have tried it before: it’s regarded as a classic by many and (obviously) some people think it is over-hyped. It’s rated as world class by Beer Advocate (disclosure: we’ve done paid work for BA magazine) and has a perfect 100 high score on RateBeer.

Reviews on both sites talk about pineapple, mango, citrus, passion fruit, pine and all that American-hop baggage, none of which we picked up — it’s as if they were describing a different beer. That made us wonder if the journey across the Atlantic, perhaps via mainland Europe, and six months in the bottle (ours was packaged in January) had taken the edges off this apparently legendary beer in a way that just happened to really work for us.

Yes, that’s right: our new favourite beer style is Staled Warehouse IPA™.

Pleasingly, The Beer Nut’s own tasting notes from 2011 seem to match ours. (This is a strangely rare occurrence.)

Consistency, Quality, Conspiracy

At the end of 2015 American consumers began to complain that bottles of Goose Island Bourbon County Coffee Stout and Bourbon County Barleywine didn’t taste right, and were ‘gushing’ — that is, exploding out of the bottle on opening.

The brewery recalled the lot and began an investigation. Now, six months on, the brewery has revealed its findings: there was an infection of Lactobacillus acetotolerans.

We hadn’t been following this story particularly but when Tom Cizauskas Tweeted about it, it caught our attention. First, it prompted us to think, ‘Huh… Isn’t the idea that when breweries get taken over by AB-InBev their quality control is meant to get better, their beer more consistent?’ (It’s a standard component of the ‘I’m glad about this take-over’ stance.)

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Magical Mystery Pour #5: Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge

Magical Mystery Pour logo.We asked noted beer writer Joe Stange (@Thirsty_Pilgrim) to select our second batch of Magical Mystery Pour beers and he said yes. Well, actually, he said:

  1. “Oh I like this. It’s like your friends actually letting you play DJ at a party.”
  2. “You know, it’s very tempting to troll you with the six worst beers I can think of.”

But, after further consideration, he decided on an entirely different theme: lager. Specifically, he chose a mix of Belgian, German and American beers, some that he knows well, others about which he is curious, all of which we then purchased with our own cash from Beers of Europe.

First, we tackled Ruhstaller’s Gilt Edge, a 4.8% ABV, vaguely-heritage-y California golden lager. Joe hasn’t tried it but says:

This one comes all the way from Sacramento at 42 IBU. I hope it’s drinkable. The labels on these revivalist American lagers remind me of current generational tilts toward things like beard oil and cowboy rye whiskey. I expect a barber shop quarter to appear when you drink this.

It came in a 330ml can that cost £3.49 — not an outrageous price but not cheap either, especially for what you might call a basic beer style.

Initial impressions, even before opening the can, were mixed: on the one hand, the label was glued to the can which, with UK beers, we have tended to regard as a bad sign. On the other, we’ve rarely seen more informative blurb:

Labelling on Ruhstaller's can: hops, barley, etc.

There doesn’t seem to be anything to hide here which is reassuring, even if we don’t actually have any idea whether those are particularly great varieties of barley, or if these farms are anything special.

After pouring, we could but marvel: it looked so pretty. The head was as stiff as beaten egg-whites and the body of the beer, pale gold, almost seemed to give off a light of its own. (Although, to be fair, this is also true of, say, Stella Artois.)

Ruhstaller's in the glass on a beer mat.

The aroma was restrained — just an appetising wisp of herbs and citrus peel.

The flavour had a few stages: first, that crusty bread savoury-sweetness we associate with decent German beers, then a brief appearance from that twist of citrus, followed by — oh, blimey! — a crushing monster truck of unchecked bitterness. The first few sips were almost challenging, tipping way over from crisp into harsh. But the more we drank, the less that bothered us. Our palates adjusted to this new reality, just as the shock-inducing cold plunge at a spa gets to be fun after a while. We began to think that, yes, we’d like a few more of these in for the kind of hot day we’re sure is on the way, when the back of the throat demands something with real bite.

It’s typically American (if we can indulge in some stereotyping) in its boldness and frankness, but that doesn’t mean it’s unsubtle or silly. There are no grapefruits here.

If you think lager is bland, or you think Jever and Pilsner Urquell aren’t the beers they used to be, give this a try. It might just be the jolt you need.

If You Can’t Get X Try Y

For various reasons (time, money, fear of flying) we’ve never been to the US and don’t plan to go any time soon which means our experience of American beer is either vicarious or through imports which we suspect, and are repeatedly told, lack the ‘zing’ of the same beers drunk on home turf.

Increasingly, that leaves us feeling slightly lost when beers such as Russian River Pliny the Elder or Alchemist Heady Topper are discussed as benchmarks of a sub-style or flavour profile.

That prompted us to ask the following question on Twitter:

Can someone better travelled than us compile a conversion chart showing which easy-to-find UK beers are most like hard-to-find US ones?

Thornbridge beer bottle caps.We’re not necessarily talking about clones and realise that there aren’t going to be many beers that are identical, but there must be a few out there that would give people trouble in a blind taste test. For example, we were once told by a hop-obsessed brewer that Thornbridge Halcyon at its freshest gets pretty close to Pliny — a thought echoed by Matt Curtis here. (Which is handy as there’s a new batch of bottled Halcyon going on sale on their website sometime around now.)

Continue reading “If You Can’t Get X Try Y”

Saisons: Prelude to Finale

We’ve set aside tomorrow evening for the final saison taste-off but, just for context, have tried a couple of US and Belgian takes on the style in the last week.

Anchor Saison (USA, £3.16 for 350ml from Beer Ritz, 7.2% ABV), also labelled as ‘Spring Ale’, was a disaster: hotly alcoholic, too clove-heavy, with a general excess of bitter spices. The clove character is, it seems, from the yeast but the recipe also contains ginger, lemongrass and lemon peel. It just needs toning down, or at least pulling together so it doesn’t rattle so much.

Brooklyn Sorachi Ace (USA, £3.68, 355ml from Beer Ritz, 7.6%), on the other hand, is one of the most immediately exciting beers we’ve tasted in a while. Rather than by-the-book amber/gold it is a beautiful pilsner-pale green-yellow, like Duvel. The headlining hop contributes lemon throughout and coconut at the end, enveloped in a feathery-light body. The yeast, firmly under control, didn’t seem to contribute much in the way of spice or funk, so perhaps the ‘saison-ness’ of this beer could be questioned. Duvel is the nearest equivalent, in fact — bright and light, Champagne-like, and one we’ll be drinking again.

We can’t see that Anchor’s effort has had much influence in the UK but Brooklyn’s must surely have something to do with the ubiquity of Sorachi Ace in British-brewed saisons. We’ll bear this in mind when we revisit our contenders in the finale.

* * *

Silly Saison (Belgium, £2.47, 330ml, 5%) is a beer we drank once or twice years ago and wrote-off as, frankly, grim. We wanted to revisit it as a reminder of how broadly ‘saison’ is applied in its native land and it certainly fulfilled that function. Red-brown and perfectly clear, it has a crystalline, Coca Cola quality which carries through to the taste: our first thought was malt loaf, then acrid cold tea, and, finally, thanks to a prompt from Martyn on Twitter, raisins. (When you soak raisins in tea to make bara brith — that!) We still think it’s too sweet and were left wondering how a beer can be both bland and weirdly nasty at the same time.

Finally, back to the Sgt. Pepper of saisons: Saison Dupont (£2.83, 330ml, 6.5%). After several months of challengers and wannabes, this was almost a relief: it is just perfect. Drying, a little flowery, alternately crisp and luscious, full of interesting details without any one facet dominating. If we could fault it, we might say the bitterness was just a touch blunt, but then that might have been a hangover from the sickly Silly.

In the final taste-off we will, of course, have Dupont in mind — how could we not? — but we’ll also remember Silly: saisons can be brown, and they can be sweet, and Dupont isn’t the only role model in town.